We’re deep into our annual scramble at the Edinburgh Fringe, but there’s a problem. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has opened and I need to see it. Not, I should hasten to add, because I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Quite the opposite. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that – in my opinion – he’s the most overrated film director in history. But, The Cameo is screening the film in 35 mm, using a projector that was made some time in the 1940s and that’s something that the geek in me needs to see. So, a two-hour-and-forty-one minute slot is located in our schedule, and here I sit as the lights dim and the screen kicks into life.
The first thing to say is that the film looks incredible. Light projected through celluloid will always be superior to a digital print. That’s a fact. And I will also add that the film’s musical score is also pretty fantastic, featuring a plethora of sparkling 60s pop classics. But I’m afraid that’s the last good thing I have to say about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The plot: actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) was once a big name in Hollywood, due to regular starring roles in Western TV shows, but now his star is beginning to wane. He lives in a big house on Cielo Drive and is driven around by his gofer, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who lives in a lowly caravan a short distance away. Booth too is on his uppers. Once a respected stuntman, he is now reduced to fetching and carrying for Rick. Oh, and the rumour is that back in the day, he murdered his wife. Next door lives the director du jour, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), fresh off the hit film Rosemary’s Baby, and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). And meanwhile, up at Spahn’s Ranch, the Manson family are gearing up for some very dark deeds…
Look, the truth is, I really should like this film. The era fascinates me and so does the central story around which this is based. But what I see onscreen is an interminable trudge through a series of over-extended background stories, with Tarantino spending far too long on telling them and being far too pleased with his evocations of 60s cinema and television. Margot Robbie barely gets any lines of dialogue (which sadly enforces Tarantino’s reputation as a misogynist), the great Bruce Lee is depicted as an absolute dick, and a whole troupe of respected actors – Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino – are brought onscreen to perform five minutes of pointless ‘acting,’ before being summarily dismissed.
And then there’s that fairytale ending, applauded by many film critics as ‘audacious,’ but which to me seems merely dumb and kind of borderline offensive. Tarantino has previous form here as anyone who saw Inglourious Basterds will know.
Look, the man has many fans and this film has already been widely praised by other critics, so maybe I just need to accept that his style of filmmaking is not for me. But nobody is ever going to convince me that he is a director in control of his own process. Two hours and forty one minutes? Really?
But that 35mm print. Now that is class.